The Youth Olympic Games aren't your parents' Olympics
3-on-3 hockey? Mixed nationality teams? Yeah, this is different
The 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games begin this week in Switzerland. Not familiar with the event? Here's what you should know about it:
What are the Youth Olympic Games?
They're a multi-sport event for athletes between the ages of 15 to 18, organized by the International Olympic Committee. Just like the regular Olympics, there are both summer and winter versions — each held every four years, but in a reverse seasonal cycle (these Games are winter events, ahead of Tokyo's Summer Games.) The first summer Youth Olympics were held in 2010 and the first winter edition in 2012.
When does this one take place?
The opening ceremony is Thursday at 2 p.m. ET in Lausanne. Competition begins the next day and runs until the closing ceremony on Wednesday, Jan. 22. There are 13 days of competition.
How big is it?
Around 1,900 athletes from more than 80 countries will be in Switzerland. They'll compete in 81 medal events in 16 disciplines across eight main sports.
Are the events the same as in the regular Olympics?
Yes and no. You'll recognize Winter Olympic staples like figure skating, speed skating (long and short track), skiing (alpine, cross-country and freestyle), sliding (bobsleigh, luge and skeleton), snowboarding, curling, ski jumping and biathlon.
There are also two versions of hockey. For the standard game, there's a men's and a women's tournament. Each country can enter only one of them, and Canada is once again in the men's. The team is made up of 15-year-olds, and it'll try to win Canada's first gold medal after bronze and silver showings the previous two times.
There's also a very quirky 3-on-3 (plus goalies) version of hockey. It's cross-ice, meaning games are played on half the rink, with the nets placed at the side boards and two games going on at once, separated by a temporary wall. If you have kids in minor hockey, you may be familiar with this. If not, here's how it looks:
And there's another twist: each team is made up of players of different nationalities. Organizers say the idea is to promote "integration and understanding between cultures." There's both a men's and a women's 3-on-3 tournament.
The weirdest sport you'll see is ski mountaineering — "skimo" for short. It's basically a blend of cross-country skiing, alpine skiing and winter hiking. Athletes have to go both downhill and uphill. Sometimes they're on their skis, other times they're climbing a hill by foot with their skis strapped to their back. It actually looks pretty awesome.
Is there anything else that makes the Youth Olympics unique?
For one, there's a different spirit. Athletes still compete for gold, silver and bronze medals, but the emphasis is on inclusiveness, friendship and respect (for each other and for the environment) as much as competition.
In keeping with the vibe, athletes will take public transportation to their events. And long track speed skating is being held outdoors on a "sustainable" frozen lake at St. Moritz. The scene is pretty breathtaking:
<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Lausanne2020?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Lausanne2020</a>’s speed skating venues look just incredible. Meet the frozen Lake of St. Moritz. 😍 <a href="https://twitter.com/lausanne2020?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@lausanne2020</a> <a href="https://t.co/h7lrxsfddn">pic.twitter.com/h7lrxsfddn</a>—@olympicchannel
Also, these Games are being billed as "completely gender equal," with the same number of male and female athletes. For the first time at any version of the Olympics, women will compete in the Nordic combined event. Several events are mixed gender, including both curling competitions — mixed doubles and the traditional version of the game, which here will feature two men and two women per team. That's a trend the regular Olympics are embracing too. Mixed doubles curling made its Olympic debut in 2018, and mixed-gender swimming and track relay races will join the program at this year's Summer Games in Tokyo.
The Youth Olympic Games, though, are taking the concept of mixed events to another level by putting athletes from different countries on the same team in some events. We already mentioned 3-on-3 hockey. There are also mixed-nationality team competitions in curling (the mixed doubles event), figure skating, ski mountaineering, and short and long track speed skating.
The Youth Games are also ahead of the curve when it comes to bobsleigh. The only event being held is the single-rider monobob, which will be added to the regular Olympic program in 2022.
Has anyone famous competed in the Winter Youth Olympic Games?
American snowboard sensation Chloe Kim won two gold medals in 2016 in Norway before becoming one of the biggest stars of the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Suzanne Schulting went medal-less at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games in 2012, but six years later she became the first Dutch athlete to win Olympic gold in short track speed skating and has also won four world titles.
A few NHL players have competed in the Youth Games, including Buffalo Sabres star Jack Eichel and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Kasperi Kapanen. He actually scored the gold medal-winning shootout goal for Finland in 2012.
What about Team Canada?
This year's squad is bigger than ever — 78 athletes. Canada's flag-bearer for the opening ceremony is Lauren Rajala, a 17-year-old curler from Sudbury, Ont. She played lead on a rink that won gold at both the Canadian U18 curling championships and the Canada Winter Games last year. She'll be with a different squad at the Youth Olympics, where curling is a mixed sport and the Canadian team was selected with athletes from different parts of the country.
Canada is hoping to improve on its eighth-place finish in the medal standings at the last Winter Youth Olympics, where it won three gold medals and six total. In 2012 Canada won nine medals, but only two were gold so the team placed 15th in the standings.
Is Russia allowed in this?
Yes. Russia, you may remember, is banned from sending an official team to this year's regular Olympics because of its repeated (and egregious) doping violations. But that's not the case for the Youth Olympics. Russia will be treated like any other country. It can use its official name, flag and anthem.
How can you watch and/or follow the Games?
CBCSports.ca is streaming events live all day, every day, starting with the opening ceremony Thursday at 2 p.m. ET. Watch all the live streams here. The CBC TV network will also have coverage on Saturday, Jan. 25 from noon-2 p.m. ET. For more details, here's the link to CBC Sports' full streaming and TV schedule.
Also, CBC Sports reporter Devin Heroux will be in Switzerland for the Games. You can read his stories on the website and follow his updates on Twitter.
This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, the CBC Sports daily newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing below.